Movie vs. Trailer Deathmatch: 21

Last fall, I helped write and a spoof rock musical called 22. It was a pun-heavy tour of the MIT campus whose “plot,” such as it was, circled around a terrorist threat involving an Infinite Improbability Generator. The title was a sly reference to 24, you see; however, were we to do the same thing today, the same title would let us mock the blackjack movie 21. Here’s the trailer for the movie — extremely loosely based on the antics of a few MIT students — a trailer which I happened to see back in January, at the Science Fiction Marathon:

I could crack a few obvious jokes — I mean, isn’t “Break on Through (To the Other Side)” basically as overplayed as “Bad to the Bone,” and couldn’t we at least get, I dunno, “Love Spreads” by the Stone Roses? More entertaining, perhaps, is the reaction of the MIT News Office, which says of Kevin Spacey’s character, “While his irresponsible acts may enliven the Hollywood script, they are entirely unrepresentative of the Institute.”

Better still, Christopher Orr has reviewed the movie based solely on the trailer above, plus the Internet Movie Database’s list of character names:

But the neon buzz of Vegas, the thrill of the con, the series of cocktail dresses into which Jill pours her slender self — all gradually conspire to turn shy Ben into a smooth, self-involved player. “I’m not the same guy I was back in Boston,” he explains for anyone dim enough to have missed this by-the-numbers metamorphosis, complete with a sudden affinity for wearing sunglasses after dark. The game ultimately gets pushed too far, and Ben soon finds himself with a sack over his head, being brutally interrogated by a casino security boss (Laurence Fishburne), who has his own score to settle with Rosa.

From here, the plot of 21 (loosely based on Ben Mezrich’s nonfiction book Bringing Down the House) spins off in directions both predictable and preposterous. Good guys turn out to be bad guys; bad guys turn out to be not quite so bad after all. Ben wrests control of the card-counting team from Rosa, who responds with decidedly nonacademic vigor. Jill falls for the sweet, lovable Ben, only to wind up with the slick, opportunistic one. But never fear: There’s always time for a final, redemptive act.

By this point, though, we’ve endured at least one plot convolution too many — this is not a movie that should run to a little over two hours. Moreover, 21 never quite settles on a moral perspective: Like the (superior) lion’s den tale The Devil Wears Prada, the film can’t decide whether it wants to applaud its young protagonists’ skill or condemn the ends to which they apply it, and so alternates awkwardly between the two.

After seeing the movie, Orr finds that the trailer told just about the whole story, the only difference being that the movie was worse than anticipated: “dull, overlong, morally confused, and just not very much fun.”

You could probably make a good movie out of MIT (the ones with Matt Damon and Russell Crowe don’t really count) but it would involve a bunch of characters bombed out of their minds at Steer Roast, moshing to Mary Prankster and Freezepop, and the News Office would probably care for that even less. I’ll probably see this one when it comes out in AVI format.

Tip o’ the critic’s beret to Megan Garber.

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